About half of all vaccines are wasted due to challenges surrounding cold chain logistics, so EnsiliTech aims to remove the need for cold storage.
Global vaccination projects prevent an estimated 4 to 5 million deaths per year, according to a study conducted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2019, but 1.5 million people still die from vaccine-preventable illnesses each year. These numbers do not account for the covid-19 pandemic, which alone has taken the lives of more than 6.5 million people to date.
African and Asian countries have been bearing the brunt of vaccine inaccessibility and low vaccination rates, with countries such as Congo, Mali or Yemen having less than 10% of their population vaccinated for covid-19. The challenge boils down to both supply and storage.
EnsiliTech, a UK-based spinout of University of Bath, is developing technology that consists of protective nano shells which sit on the surface of vaccine components that prevent vaccine spoilage. Essentially, such vaccines lack the need for refrigeration and maintain their structure whether stored at room temperature or heated to 100 degrees Celsius.
EnsiliTech’s chief executive, Asel Sartbaeva, is an associate professor of chemistry who has been working on the ensilication technology for 12 years, she tells Global University Venturing: “The idea came to me in 2010, when I took my then-infant daughter to be vaccinated against tuberculosis. I witnessed the vaccination process and noted that the doctor did not heat up the vaccine after taking it from the fridge. When I questioned him on why the vaccines must stay cold, he said the components within the vaccine would be destroyed once heated.”
All vaccines are sensitive to temperature and exposure to heat impacts their effectiveness and increases the risk of bacterial growth. Storage via advanced refrigeration systems has extensive complications with about 50% of vaccines spoiling due to cold chain failures, according to WHO.
This impact is felt especially in Asian and African countries that do not produce their own vaccines, instead importing them using specialised shipping containers. It’s a logistical challenge that creates significant costs.
“This made me question, ‘why do vaccines need to be stored in refrigerators at all?’” says Sartbaeva. “The alarming statistics around vaccine degradation made me ponder further about my own experiences. A cousin of mine from my home country Kyrgyzstan was diagnosed with hepatitis and died from flu-related complications. I thought about how her death could have been prevented by better vaccine transportation and accessibility.”
“From working at University of Bath’s department of chemistry for nearly 10 years, I understood the structural components around silica-based materials and thought I could make a difference and use this material to coat vaccines.”
A unique proposition
There have been various companies and startups specialising in vaccine storage and degradation that have attracted copious amounts of attention, such as Blackfrog Technologies’ portable, temperature-regulated carrier called Emvolio. Emvolio protects vaccines within the last mile of transportation where degradation is reportedly at its highest.
EnsiliTech’s ensilication process is unique. Sartbaeva explains: “The process of making vaccines stable is quite complex and my knowledge in biologicals was initially very limited. But once I found various collaborators in immunology and biochemistry, EnsiliTech was able to publish its first paper on the method of ensilication for the thermal stabilisation of biologicals.
“After applying for a patent in the US and Europe, and the US, in particular, noting the success of our product, I was told by various companies to start up my own business because universities were considered to be quite slow responding to ground-breaking work. After this, the four founders of EnsiliTech came together.”
Forming tight relationships
EnsiliTech launched in July 2022 with the support of Spin Up Ventures, the venture arm of Spin Up Sciences, a commercialisation firm whose portfolio includes spinouts from a range of institutions such as University of Bristol’s glass coating temperature regulators Albotherm, previously featured by GUV.
“Spin Up Sciences were crucial for us,” notes Sartbaeva. “The company would not have set off if it wasn’t for the support provided by Ben Miles, the founder and CEO of Spin Up Sciences.”
Sartbaeva continues: “Spin Up Sciences broke down the process of spinning out EnsiliTech in laymen’s terms which further cemented this idea that we should partner with them. Since then, our relationship with them has been ever stronger, and they have seen us through so much from the very beginning.”
Miles previously commented: “EnsiliTech’s technology is a huge leap forward and offers the possibility to increase patient access to life-saving medicines and vaccines. We are incredibly excited to support this driven team to realise their vision for the future.”
Spin Up Ventures is not the only successful partnership formed by EnsiliTech. The spinout has also entered into a relationship with We Are Pioneer Group (WAPG), an innovation-focused business and platform creator, and incubator SETsquared.
Sartbaeva elaborates: “WAPG was integral in introducing us to Innovate UK [and that] allowed us to have conversations with around 100 specialist stakeholders, vaccine producers and governmental bodies in the biotechnology sector.
“Through this, we identified three groups we wished to work with, and this allowed us to apply for a special grant with Innovate UK to upstart EnsiliTech.”
She adds: “SETsquared further scoped out other organisations who may wish to work with us, mainly spinouts within their portfolio. They chose us to be in their launch programme to further upscale the company to get the needed business propositions and added funds.”
Continued university support
Alongside Sartbaeva, EnsiliTech’s co-inventors include Aswin Doekhie, Stephen Wells and Matt Slade. Doekhie serves as the company’s chief technology officer, Wells is a scientific advisor and Slade is the business development manager.
Sartbaeva, who was a research fellow at University of Oxford for five years before joining Bath, also became a Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Fellow in July and since February 2021 has been an ambassador for Unicef’s Girls in Science programme, which seeks to empower 14 to 18-year-old schoolgirls from rural areas in Kyrgyzstan to enter into science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers.
“All the academic research conducted was done through University of Bath which solidified the effectiveness of our product,” highlights Sartbaeva. “The university funded all the patents we applied for, and we have now entered into an agreement that EnsiliTech will own the exclusive licences for all the intellectual property from the university.”
“Our relationship with the university is very strong in not only providing us with further courses to support EnsiliTech but it has held an equity stake in the spinout meaning we work with them regularly.”
EnsiliTech’s focus now is on closing their pre-seed round, as well as seeking out further partnerships with biotechnology companies and vaccine manufacturers. The need to eradicate vaccine and healthcare inequality is irrefutable, so the steps EnsiliTech is taking are to be welcomed by everyone.